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Uniform of prisoners of war in German camps

Close to the end of the Great War around 2,4 million prisoners of war from 13 countries were held captive in German camps. Despite unrestrained Allied propaganda German military administration devoted sufficient attention to their fate and establishing of more or less acceptable conditions for officers and soldiers in POW camps was not the least of its concerns. Introduction of a special uniform for enemy military personnel had been an integral part of German efforts to ensure proper care of prisoners as well as an effort to make their escape more difficult.

Several types of POW clothing could be made out based on study of period photos and reliable sources.

POW 1

1. Initially prisoners continued wearing their own uniforms or were provided with captured uniforms if the former was considered to be unfit. As the war progressed and numbers of POWs increased drastically, German administration faced acute shortage of uniforms. Hence by the first autumn problem of equipment of Entente prisoners became topic to such an extent that it was decided to introduce a special uniform for POWs.

2. The very first special POW uniform issued in November 1914 consisted of short jacket, trousers and cap, all made of black cloth. A jacket (Jacke für Kriegsgefangene) was made of black wool with bright yellow edging on collar and sleeves. Black trousers also had same edging on external seams. Two types of a black cloth cap (Mütze für Kriegsgefangene) were manufactured, with or without visor. Both had a distinctive bright yellow edging at the top of the band. Visors were predominately made of synthetic materials and covered with black oilcloth. Two small round ventilation holes were found on each side of the top. 

POW 2

3.A shortage of yellow cloth the Germans run into in September 1915 led to use of light brown canvas instead. As new color was less conspicuous and therefore escaped prisoners stood a better chance of elusion, another distinctive elements of POW uniform were introduced in October 1915: 10 cm wide armband of light brown canvas on the left sleeve and 5 cm stripes on the trouser seams.

4. A new model of cap was introduced by the Prussian War Ministry on November 13, 1916. It was made of rough black wool and had a light-brown canvas braid as well as edging of top of the same color. Visor was manufactured of various materials, including black leather, vulcanized fiber or even cardboard. Lining was made of raw linen.

5. The final model of POW jacket made of black wool as before but without edging was introduced on September 18, 1917. It was a single-breasted suit with stand-up collar and five palm-nut buttons and was fully lined with raw linen. No pockets were provided, 10 cm armband of light brown canvas was sewn on the upper part of left sleeve. 

POW 3

6. Wool stock run low in August 1917 and it was decided to supply POWs with obsolete German peacetime tunics (Waffenrock M1895) that were to be altered and dyed black. Shortage of chemicals felt before long meant that tunics were no longer dyed and retained their original dark blue color. After a while other types of field grey clothing with ripped off shoulder straps and Litzen were issued to prisoners from army stores.  

7. Close to the end of the Great War, on July 25, 1918 Prussian War Ministry instituted an overcoat for POWs. Before that prisoners were issued with used army overcoats that had been altered. A newly introduced overcoat (Mantel für Kriegsgefangene) with stand-and-fall collar was made of black wool, fastened with six black palm-nut buttons and had two pockets with external flaps. It also had a half-belt buttoned at the back with one button. Like a POW jacket, it had a 10 cm armband of light brown canvas as a distinctive feature of a special uniform. When canvas became scarce armbands of paper cloth of various shades right up to white were issued to prisoners.

POW 4

It’s worth mentioning here that due to objective difficulties all the items described above though having been instituted officially by the Prussian War Ministry, were supplied to POW camps in limited numbers. Being unable to equip properly even German irregular units, i.e. Landsturm battalions, German industry focused on needs of the acting army leaving behind other orders. As a result of wartime shortage prisoners wore a medley of official POW uniform, civilian items (e.g. peaked caps, wide-brimmed hats, coats, etc.), German army used items and retained outfits of their own armies. Wearing of an armband on the left sleeve was sometimes violated and photographic evidence shows those cloth stripes were sometimes sewn to the right sleeve.

Generally POWs were identified by various numbers sometimes together with letter symbols. Personal numbers could be marked on a tin badge worn on the cap, painted or stenciled on cloth sewn to headgear or outerwear. 

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